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Thursday, 6 September 2012

Let's have a fair fight

Now that the gloves are coming off in the run up to the US presidential election, I’m hoping that the media coverage improves on the execrable example of 2008 and that there is at least a modicum of impartiality and the possibility of something approaching reasoned discussion and debate. Last time around, the mainstream media was very firmly behind Obama, generally perceived to be the fresh, attractive and culturally significant candidate in what many folk viewed as a landmark election. It was certainly a landmark election for the BBC, in the sense that the corporation pretty much abandoned even the pretence of impartiality in favour of pushing the received narrative, namely that Obama was the chosen one.

I am not unsympathetic to the notion that there were all kinds of cultural reasons why the election of an African-American president was unequivocally a good thing, but there was very little discussion about the actual politics, beyond repeated use of those campaign bromides about ‘hope’ and ‘change’.
It seemed that so much emotional and intellectual capital was invested in the Obama project that barely a dissenting voice was tolerated. Caught up in what, at times, seemed like an almost messianic zeal, some reporters hinted that only a ‘racist’ Republican vote could have kept Obama out, seemingly unaware that the decisive element of any racist vote, by definition, would have to have come from the Democrat side. It is very rare indeed for the hard core Republican vote to fall below 40% (George W. Bush had polled 50.6% in the 2004 vote). Before Obama, the last Democrat to get 50% of the popular vote was Jimmy Carter in 1976. Since then, no fewer than four Republican candidates had polled more than half of the popular vote, none of them running against a black candidate. To have imputed race as a motive was a disgraceful slur on the American electorate.

On a personal level, I found myself surprised -more than once- by some of the throwaway remarks that folk were prepared to make. They seemed not to understand that, if it is wrong to make a negative judgement on someone because of the colour of his skin, then it must also be wrong to make a positive judgement based on the colour of his skin. Some of those remarks may have come -as the saying goes- ‘from a good place’ but we shouldn’t forget that those ‘positives’ and ‘negatives’ are merely aspects of an equation in which the key component is that willingness to pass judgement based on skin colour.

Beyond the race issue, some of the day-to-day coverage also left a lot to be desired. I recall one particular example, a vivid illustration of the lack of perspective and balance that was all-too-common.

Dom Joli was hosting a Sunday morning news and current affairs show on Radio Five Live and was interviewing a number of guests on the subject of the election. At one point in the discussion, the American goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann –at that time resident in the UK- was asked if he would be sending in a postal vote. He replied in the affirmative, stating that his family, from several generations back, was firmly Republican.

Joli said: "Oh ... that's a bit weird". An awkward pause followed, before Mr. Hahnemann, to his credit, handled the slight with good manners and no little grace, allowing the conversation to move on.

A couple of things were remarkable about this incident. First, Joli was clearly confident that he had license to be rude to a guest and to write off about 46% of the American electorate as ‘weird’; in other words, he was comfortable with being explicitly partisan on a news and current affairs show.

The second remarkable thing comes from the realisation that Joli's bewilderment about Hahnemann's support for the Republicans was actually genuine. He was truly shocked that the goalie could have those political views.

The word 'bias' is inadequate in a case like this, because the notion of bias infers an understanding that you are favouring one position as opposed to another. If you are biased, you choose to discriminate because you are aware that you have a favoured position. What should we call it when someone is literally unable to understand or appreciate that other folk might have another, entirely legitimate, take on things?

It would be nice to think that the race issue can be parked and that the records of the individual candidates will be the focus of the discussion. It would be nice to think that our state broadcaster will seek to uphold standards of probity, honesty and impartiality.

It would be nice, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

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